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Born: Wednesday 5 August 1931, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Billy Bingham is inextricably linked with the two most successful periods in Northern Ireland's football history. During his playing career, he was an important member of the squad which reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958. Subsequently enjoying a long career in management, he went on to have two separate spell in charge of his country, leading them to two further World Cup appearances in the 1980s.
The son of a shipyard worker, Bingham was born in East Belfast on 5 August 1931. His childhood friends included future international team-mate Jackie Blanchflower. Initially a centre-forward, he played for local youth teams Orangefield Star and St Donrad's Youth Club and was capped by Northern Ireland schoolboys. His first professional club was Belfast side Glentoran, where his manager converted him into a winger. He became a regular in the 1949-50 season as Glentoran lost out on the title to rivals Linfield after a play-off.
Having impressed in a game between the Irish and English leagues, Bingham was signed by Sunderland early in the 1950-51 season and made his international debut at the end of that season, in a 2-2 draw with France. In a team that rarely managed to rise above mid-table, the highlights of his time at Sunderland were a fourth place finish in the league in 1955 and two appearances in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
At international level, Bingham was part of the Northern Ireland team that achieved a stunning win over Italy in January 1958 to reach their first ever World Cup finals in Sweden. He then went on to play in all five games as the team earned a draw with holders West Germany and two victories over Czechoslovakia, one in a play-off, to reach the last eight before eventually falling 4-0 to France.
That summer, Bingham signed for Luton Town and appeared in the FA Cup final at the end of his first season, but lost 2-1 to Nottingham Forest. When Luton were relegated to the Second Division in 1960, he secured a quick return to the top flight when joining Everton in October of that year. In three years at the club, Bingham went on to play an important role in the team that won the league title in 1963, by six clear points from nearest rivals Tottenham.
The title was to prove the high point of Bingham's club career. He lost his place in the Everton team that summer and rather than play in the reserves, decided to leave for Third Division Port Vale. He also played his last international match in 1963, in a very disappointing 8-3 defeat to England in the British Home Championship. His 56 caps were at the time a national record shared with Danny Blanchflower.
In autumn 1964 Bingham's playing career came to a very sudden end when he broke his leg playing for Port Vale and was forced to retire at the age of just 33. He quickly moved into management, taking charge of Fourth Division side Southport in the summer of 1965. An immediate success as a manager, he led Southport to the first promotion in their history as Fourth Division runners-up in 1967.
Unusually, Bingham combined club and international duties when he was appointed manager of Northern Ireland later that year. He almost led his country to the 1970 World Cup, but their hopes were shattered by a 2-0 defeat to the Soviet Union in their final qualifier. He had moved to Plymouth Argyle in 1968, but left in 1970 amid fans' concerns that he couldn't do both jobs simultaneously. Staying with the national team for another year, he also managed Linfield, leading them both to the Irish League title and also a remarkable triple cup success.
In the summer of 1971, Bingham left both jobs and made a surprise move to Greece to manage the national team there. He was in charge for almost 18 months, but won just two of his 12 matches. Returning to Everton as manager, he seemed set to add another title to the one he won as a player when his team led the table with ten matches remaining in 1975 but a poor finish left them in fourth place, three points behind champions Derby.
After a poor run during the 1976-77 season, Bingham was sacked. He went on to have brief spells with PAOK Salonika in Greece and back in England with Mansfield Town, before beginning his second spell as manager of Northern Ireland in 1980. Over 13 years in charge, Bingham developed a reputation for making the most of the limited number of top class players at his disposal and overseeing his country's most successful period. His first challenge was the British Home Championship, where with wins over Scotland and Wales and a draw with England, he led his team to only their second outright win in the tournament's 96 year history.
One year later, his team only needed to beat Israel in Belfast to clinch a place in their second World Cup, and unlike in 1969 got the job done with a 1-0 win in their final qualifier. At the finals Bingham's team proved to be one of the surprise packages, although their start was far from convincing. Draws with Yugoslavia and Honduras left them needing a result against the host nation to reach the second stage. Shortly after half-time against Spain, Gerry Armstrong gave Northern Ireland a lead they did not relinquish and remarkably, Bingham led his team through as group winners.
In the second group stage, Northern Ireland faced Austria and France. Having led at half-time, it took a late equaliser to earn Bingham's team a draw with Austria which meant they needed to beat France to reach the semi-finals. That was always going to be an uphill task against such a talented side and proved a step too far, a 4-1 defeat sending Northern Ireland home but not before they had made a huge impact on the competition.
Bingham also came agonisingly close to leading Northern Ireland to the finals of the 1984 European Championship, achieving two victories over World Cup finalists West Germany in their qualifying group. Too many points were dropped in other games however, and the Germans won their final game to qualify on goal difference. Northern Ireland did manage to win the last ever British Home Championship in 1984, England and Scotland's last match draw handing them the title on goal difference.
Bingham did take Northern Ireland to another major tournament in 1986, a 0-0 draw with England at Wembley securing a place at the World Cup in Mexico, but his team were not the force of 1982. Having drawn with Algeria and lost to Spain with Brazil still to play, the writing was on the wall. Brazil won 3-0 and Bingham's team went out, having reached the end of an era. However, his achievement in taking such a small country to two consecutive World Cups should not be understated.
Bingham remained in charge of Northern Ireland until 1993, although his team did not really come close to reaching another major tournament. His final game was a volatile final qualifier for the 1994 World Cup, when Northern Ireland almost denied their neighbours from the Republic the point they needed to qualify. Retiring from management aged 62, he has nevertheless remained in football, recently working as a scout for English side Burnley.
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- Published on Friday, 12 October 2012 22:33